Change Whisperer – Gail Severini, Symphini Change Management Inc.

Stolen: Change Management. Reward offered. So What? Post 1

“Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted with the important matters.” — Albert Einstein

How often have you seen “3 phases,” “5 steps,” “8 guidelines,” or a “curve” where no source material is referenced? How is it possible that blog posts, articles, and methodologies that describe and prescribe change management offer no citations?

The transitions that human beings make through change―both as individuals and in groups―are complex. This has been studied by psychologists for decades. Over the years, extensive research has been conducted and there is science behind the principles that have emerged and been distilled.

Is it conceivable that any author (outside of a handful or so of luminaries) could possibly have the first-hand research and practical experience to produce legitimate, original work—solo?  “Oh,” you say, “I often see Kurt Lewin, Dr. Kübler-Ross, and maybe even Edgar Schein referenced.”  And?  Right, not many others―particularly not when it comes to methodology.

Confounding. Impossible. Rubbish.

This series will examine why we all should care and what we can do about it.

“Broken windows”

In the first “Freakonomics” book [1], Levitt and Dubner talked about “the broken window theory”:

“The broken window theory argues that minor nuisances, if left unchecked, turn into major nuisances: that is, if someone breaks a window and sees it isn’t fixed immediately, he gets the signal that it’s all right to break the rest of the windows and set the building on fire too.”

They go on to talk about this principle as one of the innovations that the New York City police force used to drive down the incredibly high crime rate in the 1990s.  They began cracking down on all sorts of minor nuisances like “jumping a subway turnstile, panhandling too aggressively,” etc.  One of the outcomes: “New Yorkers loved this crackdown…that choking off these small crimes was like choking off the criminal element’s oxygen supply.”  This kind of activity is a virtuous circle―it reduces the criminal element while amplifying the sense of community.

We face a “crime” challenge of our own.  By most accounts, the failure rate of change is still incredibly high, in the range of 50-70%. Either we are a part of the problem or we are a part of the solution. What are our “broken windows”?  Surely a dearth of discipline around professional ethics generally is something that, as a community, we should be concerned about?

Let’s start with plagiarism―malicious marketing

It seems benign enough right? No one really gets hurt when someone “borrows” a phrase here or an idea there.  Well, go with me for a bit.

First, perhaps you think you know what plagiarism is―I thought I did.  However, turns out there’s a bit more too it. Plagiarism also extends to ideas. And, it seems to me, that this is pretty important when it comes to ideas regarding how to help people transition change. is an organization dedicated to “help people all over the world prevent plagiarism and restore integrity to written work.”  They use a definition from the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own
  • to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source

I particularly appreciated the clarity in this section on “But can words and ideas really be stolen?”:

“According to U.S. law, the answer is yes. The expression of original ideas is considered intellectual property, and is protected by copyright laws, just like original inventions. Almost all forms of expression fall under copyright protection as long as they are recorded in some way (such as a book or a computer file).”

Academic institutions take this very seriously and most of us were well-trained in that context.  And yet, in the wild world of the internet strange things are happening.

I often see original intellectual property (published in widely renowned textbooks and mainstream popular business books) re-mixed and mashed together with other ideas without citation or even acknowledgement. I’m sure you see it too.

Where the rubber hits the road―commercial application

It is bad enough when intellectual property (IP) is plagiarized for the purpose of making another party seem smarter than they are.  However, misrepresenting it for commercial purposes is even more problematic―it directly impacts organizations, our profession, and the practitioner.

You can buy change management in a variety of forms: books, training, coaching, and consulting. All are expensive up front, but the real risk is in the cost of sub-optimal execution.

There are a very small number of commercial change management methodologies and all are proprietary (refer to Change Management Methodology [Strategy Execution Methodologies. Post 4]).

There are also a large number of practitioners and small-to-medium-sized enterprises that have developed their own approaches from training/education and their own experiences. Many of these are adequate for developmental or transitional change. However, their applicability to transformational change relies entirely on the capability of the practitioner. There are only a few practitioners who are senior enough and seasoned enough to pull this off.

If you are executing transformational and strategic change you really want to be dealing with a “commercial grade” methodology that has been thoroughly “road tested” and you want to be talking to thought leaders in that firm. Every organization is different and every transformational change is different. A degree of customization is always required. It is critical to work with the originators of the methodology. Originators evolved their methodology over multiple implementations to correct, add, and refine. They did this consciously, deliberately and carefully with full knowledge of the effects of previous iterations and appreciation of the risks, dependencies, and variables.

What does it look like when great IP is stolen and represented as legitimate? It may be impossible for anyone to tell except the parties involved. However, surely it is fair to say that only the originator and their properly trained people will be competent at execution of the methodology, and certainly only they should be entrusted to modify it.

1. Impact on organizations

What are the risks that an organization takes when using an imitation (methodology and/or practitioner)? Here are a few thoughts:

  • They don’t know the approach thoroughly enough and apply it shallowly, inconsistently, and/or improperly.
  • They come up with interpretations from the diagnostic tools that are shallowly based and /or potentially straight out wrong.
  • They believe they can modify the original IP and do so to the extent that it is no longer aligned with or supported by the original research.
  • They make recommendations and implement interventions that are ineffective (wasting money) or counter-productive (setting the initiative back).

You can imagine that in a situation where the strategy is a business imperative, where speed and effectiveness are important, these risks are intolerable. In situations where the change is taking place in a hostile environment (perhaps in a union environment where trust has been very low) this could precipitate the death knell for the organization.

2. Impact on our profession

All of this goes in the direction of producing poor work:

  • Perhaps leaders and targets do not adopt the change thoroughly, the strategy falls short or fails, profitability falls, jobs are lost, the community is negatively impacted. In the case of business imperatives this could mean the closure of a unit or even company.
  • Clients paying for change management see that it is not working and attribute the failure to the profession rather than to the practitioner/methodology. They withdraw support of CM capability and further diminish the ability of the organization to adapt to change.

The credibility of the change management profession overall is denigrated.

3. Impact on the practitioner

Every practitioner, at every step in his or her own professional development journey, brings value to the table. Over-reaching one’s current capability comes with a price—a price for the practitioner and a price for the customer. Every incident of IP theft both exposes and erodes the integrity of the perpetrator.

Experienced practitioners know the source and see through the deception immediately. Rather than being impressed, we become distrustful of that individual. Even business leaders are becoming informed enough to know who the dozen or so original thought leaders in this space are. Omitting citations is the most obvious infraction—it exposes the perpetrator as naïve at best, perhaps a liar, or, at worst, a fraud prepared to do almost anything to make a buck.

A word on procurement

This all presents a very difficult challenge for organizations sourcing change management and strategy execution approaches (training, coaching, methodology, and/or consulting). There are huge variations between independents and consulting firms.

The best advice is to retain someone who really knows the change management profession to guide your RFI or RFP and do your own homework. Ask lots of questions about tenure in the field, speaking engagements, publishing, case experience, etc.  Tenure in the field will tell you quite a bit. Unless they have been practicing since the 1970s, they are “standing on the shoulders of those who went before”―ask them who (and if applicable, if they have licenses to use that IP).

Bigger than us

Most of us have gravitated to change management to “do good.” We spend a lot of time translating that into compelling justifications to the organization. They usually go like this:

  • Change management helps people understand, commit to, and align with new strategies (mindsets and behaviors).
  • We reduce resistance and build increased levels of commitment.
  • We expedite transitions and help move staff to learn new capabilities faster.
  • This contributes directly to the bottom line.

However, this job also comes with a responsibility. If we fail or fall short, we have not only reduced the effectiveness of the new strategy, we are shorting the organization’s profits and, playing this out, potentially costing jobs that impact the community.

This is bigger than just “us” and our usual obsessions about sponsorship and resistance. It is about delivering the value proposition—not just about helping the people directly affected by the change but also about securing the competitiveness of that organization and its place in the ecosystems of that community and the economy.

This level of responsibility demands that we bring forward the very best of our profession. It requires that we are sober about our work―jobs and livelihoods depend on it.

Plagiarism and stolen IP denigrate our profession. This impacts all of us.

What are you going to do about it?

The next three posts in this series will look at:

  • Why is this happening now?
  • What is fair game and what is foul play?
  • What is the “reward” for integrity?


[1] “Freakonomics: A rogue economist explores the hidden side of everything,” Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, HarperCollins Publishers Inc., NY, 2005.

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3 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Gail – thanks very much for calling this to attention thoughtfully and thoroughly; for spelling out the consequences and offering practical recommendations. Glib plagiarism has been bugging me for years but have only made the effort to comment on this in specific instances. And I know that on occasion I have done it myself. Plagiarism seems to have taken some roots in our community. Kind of like jaywalking or driving 10 miles over the speed limit. Easy to say “everyone’s doing it” and just move on. I was so moved by Peter Senge’s approach in The Fifth Discipline, the way he gave credit to those from whom he learned, while truly broadening, deepening, synthesizing, and extending their work. A true role model. I want to join with you to hold ourselves accountable in a positive spirit, using what we know about change to change this.

Comment by Dave Roitman

Dave, I really appreciate your comment and the example of how to do it right is outstanding. Maybe that is a part of what we all can do – publically recognize and thank practitioners who do great citation.

Comment by Gail Severini

[…] Kathie Dannemiller was a master of adaptation.  In the model above (DTA, 1994) she took what she learned from Drucker’s Management by Objectives (MBO) approach and applied it to strategic planning.  As you can see, the phrase above the model states “our version of Drucker’s model …”  Kathie was not the kind of plagiarist that is alive in well in the consulting world today (see Gail Severini’s blog series on consulting plagiarism). […]

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